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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Thomas

Animal Highlight: Recognising Pale Male

In S6E3 of the Animal Turn, Steve Cooke said people should recognise animals as individuals, worthy of concern for their own sake. This is important to upholding animals' individual rights, rather than simply thinking of them as worthy of concern because they're members of certain groups or species. When we recognise animals as individual beings who matter for their own sake we recognise that they can (and indeed should) have rights, including habitat rights. Claudia's conversation with Steve got me thinking about a red tailed hawk in New York City known as Pale Male. Pale Male has an interesting story - he was recognised in the city as an individual worthy of concern and who had a claim to his urban space.





Before I go into Pale Male's story, let me tell you a little bit about red-tailed hawks. Red tailed hawks are one of the largest and most common birds of prey in North America. They’re somewhere between the size of a crow and a goose, weighing between one and one and a half kilograms and with a wingspan of over a meter. They have a really distinctive long, rasping call and films often, mistakenly, use this when they’re showing bald eagles. Red tailed hawks are generalists and opportunists and this makes them capable of adapting to almost any habitat which is why these apex predators can even thrive in urban settings. Pale Male did exactly that in New York City.




Pale Male, so named for his light colouring, was first seen as a young hawk in Central Park in 1991 and he went about setting up a nest on the ledge of a fancy apartment building that bordered the Park. His distinctive colouring and his choice of nest site made him easily recognisable to the human inhabitants of the city. Interest in Pale Male started with the bird enthusiasts who watched him, the other red tailed hawks, and the other birds in and near Central Park.


But because of the unusual location of his nest, interest in Pale Male spread beyond dedicated bird watchers, and other people in the city started to pay attention to him, taking an interest in him as an individual, as Pale Male, not just as a red tailed hawk. We don’t often practice this kind of individualisation with wild or liminal animals. People might have thought of Pale Male as just another one of the red-tailed hawks (and other birds) who live in Central Park. Or they might just have thought of him as a red-tailed hawk more generally.


But they didn’t, they thought of him as Pale Male. And Pale Male became something of a celebrity - he was the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles, three books, and an award winning documentary called “The Legend of Pale Male.”



A lot of this interest was because of where Pale Male had build his nest. It wasn’t just that he’d built his nest on an apartment building rather than in a tree in Central Park. The apartment building he’d chosen was on the upper east side - some of New York’s most expensive real estate. And the building, like many others, was covered in anti-bird spikes which are intended to stop birds roosting and nesting on them. As Pale Male proved, this kind of hostile architecture doesn’t necessarily work. In fact, other birds have even started building their nests from anti-bird spikes.




At first people left Pale Male’s nest alone but in 2004 it, and the anti-bird spikes which had accommodated rather than deterred it, were removed. Perhaps because people had recognised Pale Male as an individual they were intensely concerned for his welfare. Residents of the building and New Yorkers generally rallied in protest at the removal, calling it heartless and demanding that the nest be reinstated.


This brings us really well to what Steve was saying in his conversation with Claudia. Steve suggested that both humans and animals need to have their interests respected to live a good life. And if animals need habitats to live a good life, then they should have rights to those habitats. Pale Male needed his nest to live a good life, to fulfil his potential to hatch and rear chicks. Red tailed hawks like Pale Male use the same nest with the same partner for many years. They have impressive courtship rituals which involve the male flying high and then plummeting down to the female. Sometimes the pair of birds will lock talons in mid-air and spiral towards the ground before pulling up and then perching to preen each other.





So when his nest was removed, Pale Male’s ability, or his right, to raise chicks was violated. And because we can think of his nest as his property, we could also say that his property rights had been violated - he had habitat rights and property rights even if his ‘habitat’ was somewhere different from what we might expect and even if his property was somewhat different from what we might expect.




In response to the protests, and rather ironically, the anti-bird spikes that enabled Pale Male to build his nest in the first place were reinstalled. He and his mate Lola quickly rebuilt their nest. Unfortunately though, the pair were unsuccessful in hatching eggs. One theory is that the way the new nest was built, around and among the new anti-bird spikes, might have prevented the hawks from being able to turn their eggs during the incubation period, meaning that the chicks didn’t grow to hatch. It’s not certain that this is the case, but that’s the theory and some of the spikes were removed. Sadly, despite this, Pale Male and Lola, never succeeded in hatching any eggs together after their original nest was removed. After Lola’s death in 2010, however, Pale Male found new mates and did successfully hatch chicks in the rebuilt nest, fathering over 30 chicks during his lifetime.


When he died in 2023 Pale Male was thought to be 33. This is very old for a red tailed hawk – the average lifespan of wild red tailed hawks is 6 or 7 although others have been recorded as living into their late 20s.

Over the course of his long life Pale Male captured the imagination of New Yorkers and made them think seriously about how humans can live alongside other species in cities. Most recent data suggests that there are about 15 pairs of red tailed hawks nesting in Manhattan and the population continues to grow.



 
 

Virginia Thomas is a fellow with the Animal Turn. She is also an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Sociology. Virginia is interested in people’s interactions with their environment and with other animals. Virginia’s work explores the social and ethical questions in human-animal relationships. She is currently a research fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘From Feed the Birds to Do Not Feed the Animals’ which examines the drivers and consequences of animal feeding. This leads on from her previous research which examined human-animal relations in the media (as part of zoonotic disease framing) and in rewilding projects (in relation to biopolitics and human-animal coexistence).


You can connect with Virginia via Twitter (@ArbitrioHumano). Learn more about our team here.


 

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